Strategic Forum: Yemen 2011

Obama Addresses Nation as Military Offensive in Yemen Begins
Scott Rayman. New York Times. 10 January 2011.

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) — American forces unleashed a punishing air attack Sunday against military targets and Al-Qaeda camps inside Yemen, striking at terrorists blamed for the Black Friday attacks that murdered hundreds of Americans across the American Southwest.

“The perpetrators of these attacks will be brought to justice.” said President Obama, in a televised address given as the offensive began halfway around the globe. Speaking from the White House treaty room, President Obama assured Americans that this was not a repeat of past interventions. “America is not a war-hungry nation. We seek no harm to the people of Yemen. Our goal is clear: secure the safety of our servicemen, our countrymen, and our allies by destroying Al Qaeda networks in the region.”

The initial strike involved 35 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from American ships. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said 10 bombers and 15 strike aircraft also were involved. The assault came at 11:30 p.m. EDT — nighttime in Yemen.

Obama ordered the attack on Saturday, almost two months after Al Qaeda gunman shot down hundreds during the peak shopping hours of malls in Fresno, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, and El Paso before detonating suicide vests. The second largest terrorist attack on American soil has been blamed on Al Qaeda networks based in Eastern Yemen.

The offensive comes on the heels of weeks of mounting tension between Washington and Sanaa. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. officials “have been engaged in dialogue” with the Yemeni government for the last month, but negotiators “have not reached a workable solution.” As Sanaa “has refused to take the steps necessary” to dismantle the elements of Al Qaeda within its borders, “American action is now necessary.”

Yemen has been racked by war since late 2009 when Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh began large military offensives to rid the country of Houthi separatists, members of Shia tribes in the North of the country. The security situation in Yemen has “slowly deteriorated” since the insurgency began said Lt. Colonel ( Ret.) John Nagl, President of the Center for New American Security and expert on counterinsurgency. “The government in Sanaa simply does not have the operational capacity to fight Houthi insurgents and confront extremist networks like Al Qaeda without U.S. assistance.”

Critics have charged the Obama administration of over stretching U.S. military forces. Representatives Lynn Woosley (D-CA), Barbara Wood (D-CA), and Jared Polis (D-CO) released a joint statement this morning condemning the air strikes. “We know the pain Americans are feeling now. Terrorists murdered innocent men and women from our states…. We refuse to make the same mistakes of the past…. We recognize that a continued presence in the United States is detrimental to America’s national interest. A three theater war is not sustainable. The only possible result of this campaign is the loss of even more American blood and treasure.”


This headline has not yet happened. It is a thought-experiment, written to pose questions that those seeking a secure America must answer.

The terrorist attack described in this piece is one of many that could trigger the events related here. Such an attack need not be the gunning down of Americans as they shop for Black Friday sales, but could be anything from the hijacking of a cruise ship to an attack on an American embassy, military installation, or ship. I do not wish to ask how we will prevent such attacks; it is an issue that has been discussed thoroughly in the Beltway. More worrying is the lack of discussion on an issue just as important to our national security: what shall the American response be if an attack were to succeed.

This post attempts to begin this discussion. If a terror network were to establish itself in a developing country that lacked the resources to destroy the terrorists, what policy options would American statesmen have at their disposal? Would we be able to perform counterterrorism operations with thousand of American troops still engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

While Yemen is hardly the only area where a terrorist organization can establish roots, several aspects of the country make it ideal for this scenario. An American intervention in the region to weaken or destroy terrorist networks would place American forces in the midst of an existing conflict that commanders on the ground would have to navigate their way through. Even if operations were guided by a narrow mission when the conflict began, American efforts could easily escalate to unabashed nation-building. In addition, Yemen is a country of geopolitical significance, and is subject to interference from various regional powers.

American policy options will also be constrained by domestic realities. Antiwar sentiment is very much on the rise; it is not unfeasible to think that large sections of the populace would be against a large scale retaliatory campaign. If the security situation in Afghanistan and Iraq deteriorates over the next few years, American tolerance for another war could very well be nonexistent.

The final matter worth considering is how current strategy changes possible policy options one, two, or three years out. For the sake of this experiment I have assumed that American foreign policy will be unchanged up until 2011. This need not be the case. If, for example, the number of American servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq have been reduced by 2011, then American commanders will have a larger pool of resources to use in response to a terror attack.

I encourage my readers to address these questions in the comments or in their own publications. This is a discussion those dedicated to the future of the Republic must have, lest we be blindsided by our enemies.


Resources on the security situation in Yemen:

Yemen: The Middle East’s Latchkey Kid.  
Evan Hill. The Majils. 5 September 2009. 

US fears Yemen next staging ground for al-Qaida
Lolita Baltour. Associated Press. 27 August 2009.

Inside Story: Focus on Yemen’s Future
Al Jazeera English. 13 August 2009.

Resources on current terrorist safe havens:

Are We Winning? Measuring Progress in the War on Terror: An Interim Update

Bernard Finel. American Security Project. 29 April 2009.

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One Comment

An interesting post, T Greer, and a question that is clearly worthy of discussion. I would not expect any intervention of troops in Yemen for obvious reasons (the Somalia syndrome, antiwar sentiment, etc.) Some type of airstrike down the line, if somehow things were to escalate to that point vis-a-vis al-Qaeda, doesn't seem out of the question. Obama has shown his willingness to engage in such tactics in the Pakistani tribal regions.

Like most conflicts of this nature (and I am referring here to the al-Qaeda vs Sana'a dynamic), I imagine we are likely to see Washington almost entirely ignore it until a point of no return. That said, I am not sure there is any guarantee that al-Qaeda-like groups will ever establish a kind of longterm haven there as some are worried about. Sana'a may well respond to these latest internal threats by getting very tough. And at least towards the rebels in the north, this looks like this is exactly what they're up to.